[interview] MadeByMike: Mike Livesley

Here's FXDB's interview with Mike Livesley of MadeByMike:

How did MadeByMike start?

Originally when I started building Guitar Effects pedals back in 2008 it was for my buddies on ShortScale.org - Aen (of Dwarfcraft Devices fame) had come up with the idea of a run of no-profit simple boost pedals for the members of the forum (which is dedicated for fans of the Fender ShortScale guitars; the Jaguar, Mustang etc). He was struggling to keep up with demand as Dwarfcraft was taking off at that point so I offered to take over the Europe side of things as I had some experience in soldering and Electronics (having studied it at university). So I bought up some parts, screwed up drilling my first three cases and learned a lot of lessons and the first MadeByMike Saltboosters were built. I remember that run started with something like 28 Saltboosters being built for friends at basically cost price, so it's been a labor of love since the start really.

MadeByMike as a sideline from that really grew out of my want to expand my skills and build more interesting pedals - such as more diverse Overdrive, Distortion and Fuzz pedals along with Chorus, Tremolo and Delay pedals.

In the early days (and still) there is definitely loads of help from the DIY Forums dedicated to pedal building out there and I found it extremely useful if only to learn from people's experience with various parts, suppliers, circuit topologies etc. There are a bundle of tricks of the trade that are freely available to those interested and we're really lucky to live in this age.

The business has always been a pretty organic process relying on the support and help of friends and family along the way. Two friends from ShortScale, James and Reece, built my website and another friend, Thomas, made my initial site which got me going. My friend Tim does all my graphic work and is a complete star - my site is also hosted by Jason Schlarmann who also owns/runs ShortScale and he's been completely invaluable in helping me get up and running internationally and helping me overcome my completely pitiful understanding of the internet and How It Works. Without the support of my friends who bought my first few pedals and gave me feedback, and spread the word and made demos for me, MadeByMike would have just been that first run of Saltboosters.

Where does the logo come from?

Quite simply the pedals are handmade by me. I'm not really just egoistical or lacking in imagination - though obviously those things are also true to a certain extent.

The Logo was designed by my friend Stewart Allen of the excellent Edinburgh band, Black International. It sort of sprung from a joke that my face should be on the pedals and once he knocked it up and I put it on a few pedals it's just sort of stuck. I must admit my friends and family find it pretty amusing that people all around the world buy pedals with my face on them, and then tread on my face.

What sets MadeByMike apart from other builders?

I would say the fact that I'm willing to work with a customer to get them what they might have in their head in reality as best I can, whether it's custom graphics with the help of Tim or a specific sound they have in mind (or combination of sounds as is often the case). I'm not afraid of a challenge, but there are limitations to what I can do since I'm not a DSP house or anything.

I'm sure the fact people can get their pedal to look like whatever they want is a draw, and I think this shows in the number of Custom Shop orders we get, but the sounds are obviously key and I have to admit, testing pedals is one of the best parts of this job.

How do you start on a new pedal?

If I take my Dist2 and Dream Box pedals as an example - it probably took me around 2 months to get from the original idea to a prototype I was happy with, and then production is just a case of me doing it again without all the component subs and tweaking. In this case some news came to light about Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins using a combination of an Op-Amp Muff from the 70s (I've made my '78 IC Muff for some time) as his rhythm sound for a lot of the tracks on the seminal Siamese Dream record, along with an old MXR Distortion II into it as his lead sound. That old Distortion II certainly had a pretty poor reputation online until this came out, and the design is not without its flaws - it's big and bulky and uses a complex electronic switching mechanism and also dual power rails and a transformer. It also has a massive excess of bass response in the resonance circuit which can make that control unusable in some setups.

My Dist2 is a re-engineering of the audio core of this pedal without the fancy switching and transformer, on a single rail supply - with extension reshaping of the gain structure and frequency responses of the Filter and Resonance controls to make them usable throughout their range, without removing the ability to dial in those Cherub Rock style lead tones if you want them. There's something about combining those two pedals that really brings a smile to the face - you've got to hold on though, it's a wild ride!

How do you name your pedals?

Most of my pedal names are fairly self explanatory and as a result not all that interesting unfortunately, although the "Salty" precursor was born of the fact my sarcastic remarks on my old demo videos used to amuse my American friends on ShortScale. "Mike is a salty bastard" - well, it stuck!

Can you tell us something about the production process?

I'm the only person building pedals at MadeByMike Pedals.

Up until the last couple of months I exclusively used Veroboard/Stripboard to build my pedals and I design all my own layouts. I have since designed PCB layouts and had them manufactured for me for my three most popular pedals; the Dream Box, '78 IC Muff and Ram's Head Muff / Green Muff, and will be going this way for any future popular or complex releases.

I hand wire everything at my desk in mine and my girlfriend's flat in Hackney, London.

I buy enclosures unfinished, and sand, drill, prime and paint them in my Dad's Garage out in Berkshire. Once I week I drive across there when I'm practicing/recording with my band (who are also in the same area) and do a batch of cases. I use clear self adhesive decals to get Tim's designs onto the pedal.

How important is the look of your pedals?

I think to a lot of people, the look is really important, hence all the Custom Shop builds. In our standard line we try to go with something simple, aesthetically pleasing and identifiable.

Is parts selection important?

I steer clear of NOS parts as a rule as I'm not interested in getting into some unobtanium struggle and making short runs as a result. I shop domestically wherever possible but for some pedal parts in the UK this can be a challenge.

I don't cheap out on my parts, but there are definitely times when something doesn't matter as much as some builders might lead you to believe.

Which of your pedals makes you most proud?

I'm probably most proud of the Dream Box as it involves probably the most of me as an individual I've put into a pedal for some time in a way I can't really say of some of my other "homage" or recreation designs. It does seem to be popular also and I've heard back from a lot of the customers that have picked them up and they seem pretty happy.

I'm also excited about the Chorus pedal I hope to bring out soon which is inspired by a Custom Shop job I did recently.

Which of your pedals was your toughest build?

I made a Custom Shop Hi-Gain Distortion with 3-band Active EQ and various switches for gain and tonal shifts that was an absolute Beast. Definitely the limit of what can be done on Veroboard in a small box - never again!

Which of your pedals is the most popular?

My most popular pedals are my Muffs (Green, Ram's Head, '78 IC) and my Saltboosters (regular and plus), shortly followed by my Custom Dual Drives (including the Dream Box). I think in the case of the Saltboosters and Muffs, it's most likely because they're priced reasonably and give you great sounds without any fuss. As for the Dual Drives, I think a lot of people enjoy the idea of having two great dirt sounds at their feet in a pretty small case. Everything is about real estate these days!

Who uses your pedals and for which genres?

I only build pedals that make me want to play guitar, but I've always been taking on board the advice and tastes of my friends; Tim my decal guy has his finger on the pulse for a sleeper hit and has given me loads of great tips in the past, but everyone I've built pedals for that gets in touch has shaped what I do and will do in the future. I don't have a particular gap in the market I'm aiming for, but I'm guessing that if people are coming to me it's because they're like minded individuals. I'm hoping so anyway.

A fair few of my pedals have made their way into the hands of guys on the British guitar scene which is nice, and I'm working with a few artists I admire at the moment to make them pedals. The nice thing is sometimes I don't realise I built a pedal for someone in a band that has notoriety until I hear about it from someone else who saw them live or in the studio and wanted to know where they got a particular pedal. It's definitely preferable to the barrage of emails I get from kids wanting endorsements for free.

What does the future of MadeByMike look like?

Currently I have a day job so I'm having to manage two jobs, my girlfriend and friends and family so it's a busy time for me. I envisage moving more of my pedals to PCB layouts as I've been designing these in earnest and possibly in the future making MadeByMike more of my focus in terms of my main occupation, but for now I'll continue as I am, adding a new Chorus and Compressor to the line in 2012.

Are you working on any new products?

A Compressor and Chorus are in the pipeline. As regards the Compressor, we're talking something simple and organic in the Ross style. I did something like this for a Custom Shop job a while back and it's been gnawing at me since that I should add a version to my product line.

The Chorus is my interpretation of the classic "Come As You Are" sound with more flexibility - and a Vibrato option!

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